Monday, November 15, 2010

SFU Venture Meet Up Video

Here is a talk I gave last fall (2009) at SFU's SIFE Club. They have a series of Venture Meetup talks and I happened to be one of the guest speakers.

Below are two links :

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

One Wild Year

It’s been just over a year since I graduated from UBC and I’ve managed to do a billion different things learning along the way. Since starting EasyPlug I have realized that small businesses are extremely challenging and not for the faint of heart. The scholarly business plan will take you longer to write than it will survive once things take off. The exercise of writing the plan I believe is still useful because it forces the entrepreneur to contemplate potential outcomes. My main realization though other than knowing your market (previous post) was come in prepared financially. As a recent graduate team we all had no cash to input other than our student competition winnings (11 grand) which meant working part-time jobs. Co-founders worked as research assistants, dump truck drivers and bank tellers. Then there was myself, the unemployed member perpetually searching for a p/t job that allowed me to balance company work. I quickly realized that applying for minimum wage jobs with a business degree is not looked upon favorably. From my perspective I was a value buy, smart, well educated and willing to work for a low wage to meet my other commitments. To the interviewer I was simply someone looking for a short term gig forcing them to continue recruiting once I quit due to my company taking up increased time or failing forcing me to find a professional job.

Over the span of 3 months I must have had 10 interviews as a Fitness Receptionist, Harbour authority labourer, Nike retail, bank teller, audio stereo sales, and assistant diamond sales. Near the end I contemplated removing my “graduated” line on my resume and telling the employers that I was still a student. So I decided to get creative and rebrand myself as a consultant, quickly firing off the information online to form a sole proprietorship. I figured with a Business degree, several successful competitions under my belt what have I got to lose? The answer it turns out was a significant amount of time. I found 1 individual on Craigslist looking for a business plan writer in the fashion industry, one interview later I received an e-mail stating that she’d placed an unpaid intern in the position but I was willing to be her assistant during set hours for 500 dollars. The position went from a creative job to an 8 dollar an hour research project babysitting someone that wasn’t familiar with business plan writing. I promptly replied that she was severely underestimating my skills and unfortunately I couldn’t take the position. The designer seemed unfazed as she was busy flying to Italy the following week, it continues to amaze me how some people run their businesses with such little regard for the business itself! My main lesson here was that I was truthful stating that I wasn’t busy working a real job and was looking for side projects, the designer assumed I was desperate and tried to offer me a terrible deal. In negotiation I now plan on presenting myself so that my time and skills will reflect an adequate contract.

In the end I did receive a contract with a local media company and worked significantly on the project developing the plan. After starting EasyPlug I understood the importance of a business plan from a founder’s perspective, and believe that the research is critical. In this case the editorial content came before the business plan and I was left in the dark working away lacking both sales and accounting records. With this project I had prepared a short 1 page contract that had a couple of tasks and payment dates. My main mistake in this situation was not clarifying my time allocation to the project, and expectations for both sides. I had assumed for my compensation level I would attend a monthly meeting for 5 months, receive the company’s goals and information then complete the project. I had also agreed to provide advice, and this is where the problems occurred, I felt this was more of a bonus as the main part of the contract lay in the business plan but in the end the company neglected the business plan. They felt that my availability and advice was paramount to the entire deal. Meanwhile as I was working on the plan remotely I picked up a few 1 day jobs.

The first short contract was with a catering company that specializes in Weddings and it was a blast. Imagine serving food to 60 people that are so happy, well feed and drunk they wouldn’t dare complain. Working three weddings provided great wages and long hours allowing me to keep going with EasyPlug. Meanwhile I worked a few days for a co-founders friend on a construction site installing a load bearing wall as a labourer. Those days definitely reinforced the importance of an education as long hours moving concrete blocks in peat is not the most enjoyable experience. The life of an entrepreneur!

Soon after I traveled to Cambodia to visit my ex-girlfriend (Cambodian Business post) and came back broke to a job with NBC. I quickly realized the scale on which massive American companies operate. You are the tiniest cog in a wheel of 2500 staff for the NBC Olympics segment. The 4 month job had catered food, long hours and access to Olympics venues. Though I quickly realized that big corporations have their limitations and was happy to return my focus to EasyPlug after a long break.

Before jumping back into the Start up work I joined the Army Reserves, decided on the British Columbia Regiment. As the son of an Air Force officer I decided to pursue the officer route and I am part way through my training. I spent my summer training in Gagetown, NB for several months. Oddly enough as someone who enjoys the flexibility of small business I am having a blast in the Army.

1 year and several jobs later it is looking like EasyPlug is on its last legs and a few new doors are opening up. The founding team has decided to close the company to pursue other interests, this decision was made officially in June and I’m happy to announce that the team has landed on it’s feet with our engineers gainfully employed and Mr. Miller pursuing further studies. Currently I am on a road trip from Montreal to Vancouver and plan on job hunting upon my return. A wedding and a few days in the Rockies will be my last hurrah before the job hunt. My plan is to pursue a position in either Sales or Account Management as they are both base skills required for small companies to grow. These skills will come in handy when I start my second company when the opportunity arises. EasyPlug taught me a great deal about ingenuity, managing a team and a budget. It also developed an interest in the Tech sector and shown the importance of entrepreneurship in society. Hopefully I’ll continue to follow my interests and find great experiences while always keeping my eyes open for another great start up.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Know your Market

Over the past year EasyPlug has gone over some fundamental changes. Our original idea spawned from Apple’s magnetic technology found on their laptops. We decided to develop a product that would change the wall socket innovating in an area with great potential. We felt as our inspiration was found in the laptop market we would provide a solution for all non apple PCs. For approximately a year we fielded questions about wireless power and extended battery life, potentially limiting our growth. We worked on our business plan perfecting our pitch and winning several business awards; but there was one main problem. We weren’t talking to our customers, near the end of the year we did visit several stores asking about laptop damage only to find the problem wasn’t as large as we anticipated. How many people were tripping over their cords? Since we couldn’t build our product near the laptop end of the cord it was located near the wall socket which limited the effectiveness when someone struck the cord. After several months we decided that our real market lay in child safety. People would surely pay a premium over the small plastic pieces currently in use.

Our first focus group in child safety was a success, one participant said that he initially had plastic plugs in all sockets but they weren’t replaced when appliances were used and changed. EasyPlug provided a better technology and allowed for easy connection and disconnection, surely we had a winner. With this concept we developed a plan to enter the safety market selling our product in packages of 3 and imagined expanding in the socket market which sells millions of units annually. Our engineers designed the electronic circuit board and then the entire 1st prototype. Unfortunately as we began to receive positive market feedback we completed a BOM (Build of Materials) which came back higher than our market would bear. This also proved difficult as our team lacked experience in mass manufacturing and our BOM reflected North American pricing although it was still several times more than our price parameters. Our product effectiveness relied on a net of products covering all wall sockets rather than just one or two wall sockets. This meant that competing with a simple plastic insert; furthermore the Canadian and American electrical codes had changed earlier that year to prevent accidental damage. Using small gates sockets would prevent electrocution if children inserted metal objects. This meant that although we had a superior technology it no longer met the market need due to price constraints and our market would be limited to retrofits in the coming years. For these reasons we decided to once again shift to one of our subsidiary markets, we were a horizontal technology looking for a home!

Mid way through our IRAP grant and over a year into the team’s existence we were changing markets once again. This time to a quick release block heater adaptor, gone were the electrical circuits and flat contacts. Replaced with a stripped down mechanical device that would be easy to manufacture and would allow for reasonable margins. As I was working another job we didn’t have time to conduct the proper market analysis while the prototype was being built so we forged ahead blindly. Then I returned to the company to find some opposition when talking to outsiders about our product. One individual stated it had been done before but most importantly many individuals felt that it wasn’t really a big need. Our device worked in the occasional case where a driver pulls out without disconnecting their block heater cord. This would prevent damage to the wall socket, block heater, car body and the extension cord. The problem was that damage doesn’t happen often; we had a “push” product and required insurance style marketing where prevention stops future damage. This spawned an idea to focus on B2B rather than B2C, throughout an entire fleet of vehicles it would be more likely to incur damage and fleet managers would be willing to pay the small fee in order to keep their vehicles on the road. Unfortunately rather than disconnecting and staying with the vehicle our device remains attached to the wall electrical cord. If it remained with the vehicle and prevented a certain amount of damage our device would pay for itself. Our potential customers are car rental companies in cold provinces although the downside is that the device is easily lost if the car drives away attached. This led to another realization; our mentor at ACETECH had experience in warehouse management and explained how some forklifts might be plugged in overnight.

So in a final push we are looking into the market need of both electric forklifts and car fleets. My advice for anyone planning on starting a company is that they should try to determine their market in advance. In reality you may change markets to attack the best possible segment but at least you’ll be a leg up if you start with a significant market need.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Cambodian Business: Business in the developing world

I recently returned from a 1 month visit to South East Asia to visit my girlfriend who was completing a 6 month internship for an NGO in Cambodia. It was an experience which gave me a greater appreciation for my mentors over the past couple years and the structure of the Canadian system. So I decided to write an entry about what I feel differs between the 2 countries. Keep in mind that I’m in no way an expert and these are simply my observations that I felt other entrepreneurs would enjoy. As someone currently building a business I had taken for granted the simple factors that make starting a business a bit easier. I will break this blog post into a couple main compartments that I felt differentiated Canada and Cambodia.

1. Mentorship. If you haven’t heard of the Khmer Rouge, which I hadn't 1 year ago I recommend reading up on the Cambodian history. Often history skims over the small country but the atrocities committed should be understood and remember as to never happen again. The first book I read on the subject was called “First they killed my father” which explains the life of a Cambodian girl that escaped to the US after the communist regime fell. So what does this have to do with mentorship? During the Khmer Rouge 1/3 of the countries population died at the governments own hands. The country turned back their clocks to year 0 and became an agrarian society killing all intellectuals and members of the previous government and military. Today’s leaders had no structured society, no global perspective for around a decade and generation lost before them. Imagine trying to start a country essentially from scratch. The UN only entered the country in 92. With no role models, no one to provide advice, nobody with a successful career to follow and no capital (they also killed all the rich people) it seems like an unsurmountable task. (Side note: Some young men enter the army to develop connections that will later in life help them in business, this shows the level of obstacles you must overcome and the pockets that must be lined.)

2. Entrepreneurship. Over the past several years I have established a great interest in microcredit, third world business models and developing economies in general. Although visiting for the first time made me truly understand the concept of entrepreneurship on a scale like never before. People needed to be strong to survive. I believe the main difference other than the scale of the operations is the understanding of market forces. Cambodian businesses often became commodities with several identical stalls in a small area lacking a niche and creativity. Everybody sells the same guide books, the same table covers and the same t-shirts. I kept looking for the individual that sold something different for a premium price or asked what tourists might buy that’s not currently available.

3. Structure. Everything from roads to markets are chaotic in Cambodia, which for one month was an awesome adventure. Imagine the difficulties starting a shipping business when people drive on either side of the road slowly maneuvering across through traffic slowing things down to a crawl and cops pulling over cars for bribes. Then there’s the infrastructure with only 1 major port and bumpy roads.

4. Taxation. I never thought I’d say that I appreciate being taxed but after visiting a country with little to no government services it really makes a big difference. The side streets were dirt roads because in order to upgrade all landlords had to come to an agreement. ( That being said I'm a fan of Keynesian economics for essential government services only.)

Commerce at work:

If you want to see some of the biggest commercial mayhem visit Cambodia during the annual water festival at the start of November. The city of Phnom Penh swells from 2 million to 4 million as people come from distant villages and the main area is full of branded tents. Some of my favorites’ included diapers, scooter tire treads, multiple alcohols associated with body building (Wrestler wine, Golden Muscle Liquor) and whitening cream. Basically it was a giant outdoor Walmart! Watching villagers walking around with a tire over one arm, toothpaste in another hand and a big bag of diapers under their second arm was quite the site.

Overall I think Cambodia is shaping up for a big tourism boom in the next 10 years as it’s cheaper than Thailand, less traveled and have enough of a network in place to get around fairly easily. During the month I also spent a week in Malaysia and the differences were amazing from one of the poorest to the strongest country in the region. That wraps up my travel update and I hope every has a happy holidays!

P.S. For the beer fans that have continued to read all the way to the bottom here are my top 3 from SE Asia. Overall the beer was quite boring, a lot of lagers, a few dry beers and the odd pilsner. It’s still a luxury in Cambodia so unfortunately the honeys, winter ales, and heffervisens are still unavailable. Odd beer fact, they often serve it with ice and they provide a straw since the cans are not guaranteed clean. Other fun fact: they do have a bad Guinness knock off called Black Panther.

1. Tiger, 2. Leo, 3. Phnom Penh Beer

Recent Reads:

1. End of Poverty

2. Lucky Child

3. Confessions of an Economic Hitman (Current)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Jack of all Trades

One major factor in entrepreneurial success is often understated, the people. Of course management is paramount to a successful start up business but most business books are dedicated to marketing, six sigma efficiencies and just in time shipping. I believe the 21st Century will be the return of the Cyrano de Bergerac’s, men (and women) with grace will rise. Why? Because millions of people across the world are working with their heads down and it takes the ‘generalist’ to strategically position these skills and create vision. So what does this have to do with entrepreneurship?

Entrepreneurs need to deal with EVERYONE. In small business you have an accountant, a banker, employees, marketing specialists, and outside manufacturers. Today most of these people are located in different cities if not countries. Successful entrepreneurs need to be able to relate and manage the business at each level. If you’ve ever talked to an accountant and then called up a machinist you’ll notice a difference. I’m not implying intelligence but rather language and occupational culture. Professions operate on different wavelengths, in some industries deadlines are fixed whereas others tend to be more flexible. In engineering the vocabulary is completely different in comparison to e-marketing, a successful understanding of these differences can be very important. Entrepreneurs act as interpreters knowing just enough about every department to connect the dots in patterns that might not be seen by others. After 4 years in a business school I can’t recall a discussion regarding micro management of different occupations. There were talks regarding geographic workplace styles and how to manage employee conflict, but the concept that people were different was not broached. You may be thinking, we’ll I already know people are different. How often has a manager taken into account how you work effectively to improve his bottom line? At least in large companies employee protocol restricts management creativity but even in small companies most managers don’t realize how to maximize employee value.

So how can young people become a strong ‘generalist’? The simple answer is socializing with different people. Personally I find hanging out with the same type people boring. I’d rather go hiking with an engineer who tells be about the latest in solar panel design and I share my readings about business practice. Then another day hang out with a scientist and learn about recent genetics research. My generalist mantra has a lot to do with my philosophy of perpetual learning (View Read, Absorb, Repeat).

So how does this come in handy as a young entrepreneur? Knowing a little bit about a lot of stuff is very helpful. It’s much easier to call a friend who specializes in that area for a bit of advice than spend hours researching a new subject. This is also where young people have a huge advantage, with social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) it’s easy to stay in touch with A LOT of people. (So maybe all those hours on Facebook will eventually come in handy!) The more people you keep in touch with the more areas from which you can draw information. I’m fairly receptive to providing advice and most of my friends are similar. In the 21st century there is an abundance of information and naturally people will gravitate toward certain pockets. While always learning and refining many skills everyone is naturally more proficient in certain areas.

Team formation: Although my current company has been spun out of a UBC course building a team is something that is more difficult for new entrepreneurs. (The course allowed team’s complete anonymity in group formation. We formed our team by simply chatting about stuff we liked. Having teammates that can work together is very important, the idea will come later. If you’re lacking certain skills you’ll find them either through research or bringing on advisors.) Seasoned veterans or even people with years of experience in the field often know engineers and accountants and lawyers. When you’ve been working for 20 years and see a market niche often it’s easier to great a short list when it come to who would go well with this project. So how do young entrepreneurs compete? Social networks, University provides a great amount of talent in one space and if you have a couple nights a week to visit the local bar you might have a night or two to start up a new venture with a couple friends.

Students have the opportunity to succeed but it’s also the best time to fail. One quote I heard recently is Fail Fast, Fail Often. This is completely backward to the work hard philosophy taught in school, but the truth is no matter what your research there are WHAT IFS in entrepreneurship. So the ability to learn from your mistakes can be a huge advantage. Students have the ideal situation to become entrepreneurs, they have a significant amount of time, they have access to the university’s network & labs, they are used to learning quickly and they are accustomed to having no money. Many entrepreneurs fail on their first venture so why not try your first company while in school what do you have to lose?

This blog post was a way for me to hash out my ideas on Team Development for young entrepreneurs as I’m giving a short speech to SFU’s Venture Meet-Up on October 8th. If you have any ideas about Team Development feel free to post a comment or send me an e-mail.

Great Entrepreneur Training grounds:

Sports Teams (Every play needs a leader and quick decisions build confidence)

Students Council (Brings together people who normally might not be in the same room)

Fraternities (Students from different years, faculties and backgrounds, individuals often share different interests)

Classes (UBC’s New Venture Design course pairs Engineering students with commerce students, blending two different backgrounds requires creative thinking. Arts/Science Course at the 200 level. Increasingly Universities are incorporating interdisciplinary courses into the curriculum. Why, because today’s problems require a variety of different disciplines from anthropologists, economists, engineers and biologists.

The common theme among all these groups is that one underlying theme unites the group and brings together different individuals. For this reason entrepreneurs should try to work in different environments. Professional jobs of tomorrow require outside of the box thinking, and entrepreneurship is the ultimate test.

Great Resource:

Tim Ferris article on Jack of all Trades

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Read, Absorb, Repeat

Entrepreneurship is a game of perpetual learning. In order to constantly stay ahead of the curve it’s important to know what’s going on in your industry. I am a firm believer in the philosophy For also knowledge itself is power. The more you know the better your ability to lead others; power is not dominance but rather the ability to aid in a decision. Entrepreneurs are often perceived as risk takers but the best entrepreneurs minimize their risks as much as possible by developing a greater understanding of the upcoming problem. Founders of great companies slowly built up a knowledge base unparallel to those around them; Bill Gates did not wake up the CEO of Microsoft he slowly learned everything he could for a over a decade before even starting Microsoft.

As a new entrepreneur I find it very useful to read articles on everything from managing cash flow to small business marketing. Business books usually bring up new models and may cause you to rethink an area of your business leading to an improvement. The first small business book I read was “The Art of the Start” which really helped change my mindset from student to entrepreneur, if you don’t read the “been there done that” stories you’ll learn the hard way. How much of this information is used in my day to day activities? Usually very little, but it’s important to build a knowledge base now so when we get into those situations later on it will make the transition much easier. Also sometimes you can draw on information from one subject while dealing with another. Reading about small business is also very inspiring; people carve out niches you never thought were possible and other successes keep the dream alive.

My advice for someone thinking about starting their own company:

1) Subscribe to Inc. / Fast Company/ or whatever magazine publication is in your field.

2) Buy a recent industry business book, you’ll often find the best research and most fluid information on the subject.

3) Subscribe to Blogs/Websites for regular updates. These will be your ‘newspaper,’ staying up to date on what is happening in your industry.

4) Internet: Search for your domain name, potential twitter account, and ‘Facebook fan’ account. You never know if these features might come in handy down the road. Also twitter is moderately useful at finding interesting articles once you find the right people to follow. The large downside is that it can be a waste of time.

5) Other: Read outside your field. You might find a solution to your problem by taking a trick from another business or animal or sport, you never know so read whatever you find interesting.

6) Absorb: I personally find working out once a day is pure ‘free thinking’ time. It’s a time when I’m not pressuring myself to come up with a solution and it lets the day’s material absorb easily.

My lastly read about entrepreneurship because it’s COOL. Entrepreneurs are always doing things that have never been done before, and they usually have very interesting stories that lead them to where they are today. Entrepreneurship is a rubix cube where you need to align many variables, and successful businessmen don’t just pick up the cube. They usually take a look first and maybe ask a friend how it works; if you don’t already have mentors or advisors books and articles provide a great resource to start off on the right path. Below I have included a few links and some recent reads, feel free to comment on your favourite book/blog. Also my blog roll has links to a few sites that vary between green business, online media, travel and business.

Solid informational links:

TechVibes (For Local Tech Business updates)

AllTop (For updates about just about everything)

4 Hour Work Week Blog (Usually provides very interesting advice across many different subjects)

Quick Sprout (Interesting all round entrepreneur blog)

Cool Books I recommend:

The Art of the Start (Great first read for future/new entrepreneurs, Guy Kawasaki’s name is very well known and is an entrepreneurship guru)

4 Hour work week (Demonstrates how the business world is changing, and those who adapt fastest will benefit)

Free (Focused on how using a price of free can develop a profitable business)

The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (New business models in third world nations, forces you to think outside the box)

Blogging (About the success of the Huffington Post and how to build a successful blog)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

We’re not in Kansas anymore…

Life changes frequently in your last year of University but my biggest change was deciding to start a company. In January 2009 I was debating working abroad after graduating or starting EasyPlug. As we progressed through the rounds at Enterprize Canada I told my girlfriend that if EasyPlug placed in the top 5 I was probably going to give it a shot if my team members were also interested once the school year finished. Days later we placed 2nd and were on stage accepting a 10 thousand dollar cheque. We continued to work hard, place well in competitions and made sure our name were mentioned as much as possible in UBC magazines and faculty newsletters. Coming to the end of the school year we were on cloud nine with 16 thousand tucked away in a bank account and 3 Company Awards. The great aspect about starting a company after graduating is that you are new on the scene and people are often very receptive and willing to help. For example, I have met many people in the local technology industry through EasyPlug. Whether the product succeeds or fails in the long run I will still have my established networks. EasyPlug scheduled our first company meeting for the day after exams ended, quickly making the transition from students to managers. We discussed our summer goals and set a timeline which in retrospect was very ambitious. Early the next week we were scheduled to present at a luncheon at the 4 Seasons to showcases 7 of UBC’s new start ups, with audience members including the head of an Angel Forum and multiple seasoned entrepreneurs it was a great experience.

Shortly after the presentation we met with 3 law firms to pick our legal representation. We quickly realized things had changed, legal estimates climbed and we went from one of UBC’s stars to the new kids on the block. Everything was new, incorporation documents, entrepreneurial organizations (VEF, VEF Momentum, etc) and prototype manufacturing quotes.

During May we prepared for our last student competition which was in Hong Kong and a week before departing received news that the competition had been postponed due to Swine flu. Three of the team members were busy graduating, another was moving apartments and several were working part-time. Starting a company with limited funds, and limited relevant experience was definitely going to be an uphill battle. That month I met with several people for coffee as it’s important to build a network and get your company’s name out right from the beginning. (I plan on doing a future post on the importance of 15-20 minute coffee meetings.) Meanwhile during the post student transition my girlfriend accepted a 6 month internship in Cambodia and was busy preparing for her departure only two weeks away.

It took EasyPlug until about the middle of June to really begin to pick up the pace. During the initial months simple tasks including the incorporation, a corporate bank account, assigning performance metrics and company internal communications were all areas that took time to establish norms. Meanwhile we realized that our team had graduated in the worst recession in 20 years, and most funding was drying up for long term development projects. Although this was not a significant factor since we had planned to bootstrap the business and push off raising capital for several months. Gradually things began to roll and months later our business is progressing at a steady pace.